Interim leader Harriet Harman said that we were living through turbulent times, and she was under no illusions about the scale of the challenge. Labour had to listen to the country and campaign in a spirit of unity and mutual respect. Councillors would provide vital links, particularly in areas with few MPs.
She and others laid bare the iniquities of the Tory welfare bill. Twelve billion pounds of cuts would take more than £1,000 from many working people through slashing tax credits, even with a higher minimum wage. Those not in work would also suffer; the £100 employment support allowance for the work-related activity group would be reduced to £70, the same as the job-seeker’s allowance. Child poverty targets would be scrapped. Abolishing maintenance grants would raise student debt from £22,000 to £43,000 and could deter poorer students. The 1% annual reduction in social rents might look attractive to tenants but would make it harder for councils and housing associations to maintain their stock, and selling off housing association properties would mean fewer affordable homes.
Limiting benefits to the first two children is, for me, the worst part. It is unfair to punish children for the behaviour of their parents, in effect telling them that they should not have been born in the first place. Apparently women may be exempt if they can prove that the child resulted from rape, but families may also be affected by multiple births, adoption and fostering, the illness, death or departure of one partner or the loss of paid employment. And the caring parent bears the burden: a man may father four children but they will all be supported if they are born to different women.
Others highlighted the unfairness of four more years of public sector pay restraint, with some workers not even getting 1%. There were already 5,000 vacancies for social workers, and hiring agency staff would cost the NHS far more than paying permanent employees a decent wage. Meanwhile MPs are receiving a 10% pay rise. Cuts to corporation tax were also questioned.
Much has been said about the shadow cabinet decision to abstain on the bill. Harriet Harman argued that an overall benefit cap was included in our manifesto, some measures chimed with public opinion, and we could not continue with indiscriminate opposition. I would have liked to show some pride, pointing out that George Osborne stole Ed Miliband’s policies on apprenticeships and the minimum wage, and on gender pay audits. However, decisions on the way ahead now pass to the next leader.
Some were uneasy at apparent NEC support for breaking the whip, but collective responsibility relies on consultation, and a clear majority wanted to campaign against the bill. The rebels included most of our London mayoral candidates, and in any case MPs pay no attention to NEC reprimands.
War on Other Fronts
The ruthless partisanship of the government was shown in two other areas. Attacking trade union political funds would not only hit financial support for Labour while companies remain free to back the Tories without the consent of customers or shareholders. It would also prevent unions, including non-affiliated unions, from campaigning on Sunday trading, or on any policy which affects their members. And in this online age, union members would have to write, on paper, with an envelope and a stamp, to opt in to their political fund, a move clearly intended to hamstring the entire labour movement.
In addition individual voter registration was being rushed ahead, with the cut-off date at 31 December 2015 and no transitional measures. This would result in the equivalent of eight constituencies in London and five in Birmingham disappearing from the electoral roll. As the numbers would be used to define the revised parliamentary boundaries, this is profoundly undemocratic.
Finally on Syria Harriet Harman, with Hilary Benn, Dan Jarvis and Vernon Coaker, had met David Cameron. No proposals were revealed, and the NEC urged caution. She pointed out that without freedom of information laws we would only have discovered British participation if our pilots were killed or captured. She stressed that Labour is not represented on the group reviewing FoI.
This was Harriet Harman’s last NEC meeting after many years’ service, and members thanked her warmly. Whoever succeeds her may find out that being deputy leader is not as easy as they think.
Lessons in Progress
The Learning Lessons Taskforce, chaired by Margaret Beckett, had met twice, and would shortly be writing to parliamentary candidates, and perhaps more widely, to seek feedback from the election. Regions had also been asked to consult local parties. In the autumn the group would report to the new leadership team, who would decide what should be revealed to the NEC and to the party.
My analysis is at http://www.leftfutures.org/2015/06/twelve-things-labour-members-thought-about-the-general-election-campaign/ and Alice Perry, who represents councillors on the NEC, had also collected hundreds of responses. Comments can still be sent to email@example.com
The work is urgent because next year brings elections for the London mayor and assembly, the Scottish parliament, the Welsh assembly, mayors in Bristol, Liverpool and Salford, and local councils, seats last fought in 2012 when poll ratings were higher. Scottish Labour had been discussing new procedures for choosing Westminster candidates, and NEC members asked for sight of these.
The European referendum was likely to be held in 2016, with Alan Johnson leading the Labour Yes campaign. However Glenis Willmott promised that Labour MEPs would oppose any weakening of employment rights. She gave an update on TTIP, the transatlantic trade and investment partnership, where Labour MEPs had protected public services and argued against the secret ISDS (investor-state dispute settlement) procedure. She asked the unions for help in making the case against zero-hours contracts, and confirmed solidarity with the Greek people in their continuing crisis.
The national policy forum concluded its work on Agenda 2015 in April, and should now move on to Agenda 2020. NPF Chair Angela Eagle asked for feedback on the last cycle. I persuaded the NEC that annual conference should not set policy priorities for the NPF at this stage. Instead I believe that the NPF should meet before Christmas, with the new leader and deputy leader, and focus initially on areas critical to the election and to current Tory attacks: welfare, employment rights, migration, tax, the economy, Europe. Others argued that defining an overall vision should come before developing detailed policies. However, contemporary motions would be accepted for conference as usual.
The NEC agreed to propose a rule change restoring the right of MEPs as well as MPs to nominate leadership candidates. Two constituency amendments were opposed: Liverpool West Derby on inserting an anti-harassment clause (because there is already an over-arching statement on the website); and Wyre Forest on setting the membership fee for state pensioners at £1 (because the change could cost £743,000). Colne Valley and Huddersfield would be asked to remit their proposal to expand the constituency section of the NEC to 11 regional places (because it would change the balance of the NEC, and also gender rules would prevent men serving for more than two years).
There was discontent over some amendments ruled out of order by the conference arrangements committee on the grounds that they vaguely related to general areas which conference or the NEC had considered or might consider at some point. Although the CAC is independent, the NEC agreed to convey these views to them and encourage constituencies to appeal, notably on the proposal to allow local parties to put forward a rule change and a contemporary motion each year.
Time to Choose
Ballot papers for the leader and deputy leader, together with the London mayoral candidate, the national policy forum and the conference arrangements committee, would be posted from 14 August. Replacement papers would be issued from 24 August, and the ballot would close on 10 September. The NEC were assured that there was no evidence of mass registration by members of other parties. Constituencies could see all their affiliated and registered supporters and flag up infiltrators, and regional and national offices were also keeping a lookout, including on social media
More than 55,000 members had joined since 7 May, motivated by anger and alarm at the prospect, and then the reality, of an unconstrained Tory government. One-third were under 30, with 18 the most common age. The challenge was to retain them; of the 2010 post-election surge, 75% stayed for over a year and 50% were still members in 2015. There were 18,000 registered supporters and rather more affiliated supporters, but members would form the majority of those electing the leader.
NEC members were disturbed by negative briefings from various quarters, all of which would make it harder to bring the party back together after 12 September. General secretary Iain McNicol agreed to remind candidates of the code of conduct and also take steps to cut down the numbers of emails, which were causing too many members to unsubscribe from all contact with the party.
Questions and comments are welcome, and I am happy for this report to be circulated to members as a personal account, not an official record.